Why Money Can’t Be the Answer for Obama’s New Education Secretary

For Secretary of Education, President-elect Barack Obama recently named Arne Duncan, whose seven-year record as head of Chicago schools includes some noteworthy improvements. Duncan now faces significant challenges that require deeper reforms than those he pursued in Chicago.

Under Arne Duncan the graduation rate in Chicago schools rose from 47 percent to 55 percent and the college attendance rate rose from 44 percent to 50 percent in Chicago high schools. He also spearheaded reforms in teacher pay and school choice. His Renaissance 2010 program closed low-performing schools and replaced them with smaller entrepreneurial schools that were free from union contracts and some state regulations. A full 75 of these new schools opened on Duncan’s watch.

He also implemented a pilot program in merit pay as part of the national Teacher Advancement Program. Under this program, teachers and support staff in 40 pilot schools will be eligible to earn bonuses based on performance. In early December, the first checks were issued and 420 teachers and staff received $340,000 in bonuses at nine schools.

Teachers received bonuses because test scores in their schools improved at a rate higher than the rate of the district. Thus, teachers at under-performing schools could still qualify for bonuses if the rate of student improvement so dictated. Duncan even convinced teacher unions that such evaluations were objective, and they supported the plan. These achievements merit respect, and indicate a commitment to teacher quality and accountability.

Perhaps the biggest problem Secretary Duncan will meet is the deepening financial crisis that should prevent the Department of Education from turning to money as the solution to America’s education problems. Here Duncan’s record in Chicago is far from promising, as his merit-pay plan shows.

Merit pay is an essential element of school reform that can enhance teacher quality, but Duncan’s program relied heavily on public funding and grants from outside entities. The Chicago Public Schools received a grant of $27.5 million in 2006 to support the program in coordination with the Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Public Education Fund. If such pay initiatives are to be lasting and viable in these financially difficult times, they will have to rely on budget cutting and fiscal responsibility rather than public handouts.

The current financial climate will also force Duncan to reevaluate his call for a doubling of funding for No Child Left Behind. If he hopes to advance legitimate reforms in such a climate, he will have to cut spending and increase fiscal transparency. That is likely to anger teacher unions who consistently claim that all education problems stem from a lack of funding. Yet, both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) praised Obama’s cabinet pick.

NEA president Dennis Van Roekel issued a press release praising Duncan’s promise of more money. He also hinted at a troubling attitude toward student accountability, claiming that “[f]or too long, federal education policy has been about teaching to the test” and implied that Duncan could change this attitude. In his endorsement, AFT boss Randi Weingarten similarly urged Duncan to commit more resources to education, despite the budget crisis.

Arne Duncan supports charter schools, which provide invaluable options for students in areas where public schools perform miserably. Such schools, however, are limited in availability, and still consume large amounts of public money. Vouchers for school choice represent a promising alternative, and have been proven cost-effective in relation to per-pupil spending on public education. Yet Duncan, who was educated in exclusive private schools, has never come out in support of giving parents and students, particularly those of limited means, a true alternative to the failing public education system.

For Arne Duncan to make real changes he will need to recognize the fiscal limitations and adopt flexible measures that will save money and improve student performance. Perhaps he will improve education enough that his boss, Barak Obama, can one day send his own daughters to public schools with confidence that they will receive a quality education.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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